Scotland is often associated with Celtic culture, but the question of whether modern Scotland should be considered Celtic requires some nuance. The Celts were an ethnolinguistic group that reached the height of their influence in Iron Age and Medieval Europe. Today, remnants of ancient Celtic culture remain in various parts of Europe, including Scotland.
Brief history of the Celts in Scotland
Celtic culture began arriving in Scotland around 500 BCE. Over the next few centuries, four waves of Celtic immigrants from continental Europe settled across Scotland, bringing their culture, language and traditions with them. They intermixed with the earlier inhabitants of the region, like the Picts.
By the 11th century CE, Gaelic Celtic culture was dominant across Scotland. This included the proliferation of the Gaelic language (which is Celtic in origin). Ancient Celtic traditions and folklore also became embedded in Scottish culture.
Aspects of Celtic heritage in modern Scotland
Modern Scotland retains many aspects of its Celtic past.
Scottish Gaelic is a direct descendant of the ancient Celtic languages brought over by immigrants centuries ago. It is still spoken by around 60,000 people in Scotland, mainly in the Highlands and Islands. Gaelic culture and traditions remain an important part of Scottish national identity.
The folk music of Scotland has strong Celtic roots. Traditional Scottish songs and instruments like the bagpipes emerged from ancient Celtic musical traditions. Celtic-influenced musical genres like Celtic rock and Celtic punk are also popular in Scotland.
Some iconic Scottish symbols have origins in Celtic culture. This includes the thistle (Scotland’s national flower) and the Loch Ness monster myth. Celtic spirals, knots and zoomorphic designs are also visible in Scottish iconography over the centuries.
Many places in Scotland have Celtic-derived names, like Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Dundee and more. Archaeological sites around Scotland also provide evidence of Celtic settlement and culture over the millennia.
Early Celtic polytheism and rituals have traces in some Scottish folklore and traditions. Celtic Christianity also became very significant in Scotland starting in the 6th century CE.
Sports like Scottish Highland games, shinty and Gaelic football have Celtic origins. Even golf and curling may have distant Celtic roots.
Regions where Celtic heritage is strongest
Certain regions of Scotland are viewed as having retained a particularly strong Celtic identity and heritage:
- The Highlands
- The Hebrides islands
In these areas, Gaelic language, music, folklore and other aspects of ancient Celtic lifeways remain relatively vital and widespread.
The rugged Scottish Highlands in the northern part of the country is considered the heartland of Celtic heritage in Scotland. Gaelic Scottish culture has persisted strongly in this remote area through the centuries.
Characteristics of the Highlands that reflect its Celtic history and identity include:
- Concentration of Scottish Gaelic speakers
- Presence of Gaelic place names
- Celtic design motifs in architecture and art
- Popularity of Celtic music and dance traditions
- Enduring folklore involving mythical Celtic creatures
This archipelago off the west coast of Scotland contains a cluster of islands where Gaelic Celtic language and culture have survived with particular vibrancy. The islands have a remote insular character that has helped conserve their ancient Celtic lifeways.
Aspects of Celtic heritage in the Hebrides include:
- High percentage of native Gaelic speakers
- Rich folklore and storytelling traditions
- Pre-Christian Celtic rituals associated with the land
- Prehistoric Celtic archaeological sites like brochs and stone circles
This region in western Scotland has a long history of Celtic settlement and influence. With its rugged landscape and concentration of Gaelic speakers, it is considered one of the most traditionally Celtic parts of Scotland.
Evidence of its Celtic past includes:
- Hill forts, standing stones and other prehistoric Celtic artifacts
- Enduring folk music traditions like bagpiping
- Strong ties to Gaelic language and highland culture
The southern Scottish region of Galloway once comprised a Brittonic Celtic kingdom known as Rheged. Though the realm no longer exists, Galloway retains echoes of its Celtic political past through traditions and place names.
Other markers of Celtic heritage here include:
- Old carved Celtic stone monuments and crosses
- Saint Ninian’s Cave with early Christian Celtic associations
- Ties to the Celtic chieftain Urien Rheged
Is Celtic culture still alive in Scotland today?
Yes, Celtic culture continues to have a presence in modern Scotland, particularly through language, music, festivals, traditions and folklore. Some specific examples:
- Gaelic languages thrives through media, schools, government support
- Celtic music played at pubs, concerts and cultural events
- Highland games celebrate Scottish sports with Celtic roots
- Belief in myths like Loch Ness Monster, kelpies, selkies persists
- Tartans, Celtic knot designs incorporated into art, attire
- Traditional storytelling, poetry, dance keeps old folkways alive
However, Celtic heritage exists more as a substratum of Scottish culture rather than its primary definitional characteristic today. Scotland is not uniformly or exclusively Celtic in modern times.
How Celtic identity in Scotland has evolved
The Celtic identity of Scotland has gradually changed and adapted over the centuries:
- Ancient Celtic polytheism to Celtic Christianity to Protestantism
- Celtic kingdoms merging into a unified Scotland
- Norse, Anglo-Saxon, French, English influences diversifying culture
- Decline of Gaelic language outside Highlands and Islands
- Migration diluting Celtic isolation of rural communities
- Industrialization impacting traditions and folkways
However, even as Scotland has modernized, elements of ancient Celtic heritage persist in adapted forms as symbols of national identity.
Is Celtic identity still politically relevant in Scotland?
Yes, Celtic identity remains politically relevant in certain respects in modern Scotland:
- Celtic heritage used to emphasize distinctiveness from England
- Celtic links strengthen Scottish independence arguments
- Celtic languages recognized in government policy and education
- Some political parties like Scottish Greens promote Celtic agendas
However, Celtic identity is just one aspect of Scottish nationalism and politics. Other identities like Scottish, British, European also factor into political affiliations and divisions today.
While ancient Celtic society effectively came to an end centuries ago, Scotland retains tangible traces of its Celtic past through language, music, mythology, geography and culture. Celtic influence remains strongest in certain Scottish regions like the Highlands and the Hebrides islands. Elements of Celtic identity also continue to shape Scotland’s politics and national self-image.
However, Celtic culture does not uniformly define modern Scotland. Scotland of today is the result of many layered influences over its long history. Celtic identity is now interwoven with other ethnic and social identities within Scotland’s heterogeneous contemporary society.